Beholding Barnett Newman's Adam, Part 3: Exposing Creation

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Critics, scholars and public audiences alike recognise that Barnett Newman’s body of work comprises some of the most challenging examples of abstract art produced in the twentieth century. Still, it is often the case that commentators – whether academic specialists or general enthusiasts – are hard pressed to articulate just exactly how and why particular works reward our attention and reflection. Judging by typical responses to it, for instance, a canvas such as Adam 1951, 1952 (Tate T01091) initially seems to outstrip our capacity to discuss it. The abstract image positively eludes description – the first step in assessing and evaluating the significance of a cultural artefact. But does Adam’s resistance to analysis imply that its meaning is beyond our comprehension? We might be excused for thinking so: as Newman admitted, he considered his art to be ‘metaphysical’. At the same time, the artist was committed to the communicative power of his art. He asserted: ‘It’s human scale that counts, and the only way you can achieve human scale is by content.’ Still, when encountering instances of rigorous abstraction such as that exemplified by Adam, our interpretative procedures with regard to human content are challenged by the absence of the human figure. In this essay, I suggest that Newman implicitly addressed the conundrum through what we might call a displacement of the ‘iconography’ of the human figure to an adjunct medium: namely self-portrait photography. In doing so, he laid the groundwork for an approach to the putative absence of the human figure from Adam, and from his works more generally.

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